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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Finding the Right Words at a Bad Time

In difficult situations, where we encounter a friend who lost a spouse or the neighbor who has cancer, we often don’t know what to say. Experts and cancer patients provide advice and wisdom for those times when we want to offer comfort but aren’t sure exactly how to do so.

We’ve likely been in this situation, in one way or another. A friend’s husband has died or a family member just found out he has cancer. We don’t know what to say, so we blurt out the first thing that comes to our minds. When standing in front of an open casket, we exclaim, “Gosh, he looks great.”

Charles Puchta, founder of Care Ministry in Loveland, Ohio, recalls the story of one woman who had cancer. While walking through her small town, she saw a friend who was approaching her on the sidewalk cross the street to avoid her and then cross back after she passed by.

Puchta, a Certified Senior Advisor®, emphasizes treating someone who’s been marked by some kind of illness or tragedy as another human being. “Oftentimes, we don’t see them as people. If we don’t see them by their personhood, we define by their disease.” For example, because the idea of cancer may be threatening and make us want to turn away, Puchta suggests “renaming” the cancer something less upsetting, such as a broken leg.

In that way, the disease becomes less threatening, and, in turn, we become more comfortable approaching the person who has the disease. Puchta advises: “Ask, ‘How you are you doing?’ Don’t ignore it. Say what you would normally say. See them for who they are.”

Experts remind us to remember that the situation is not about us. Instead of worrying about ourselves, we should focus on the one who is grieving or suffering. Most of the time, the situation simply calls for an expression of compassion, even just a hug or a hand on the shoulder.

Offering Support

When we hear about friends who are suffering, either from the loss of a loved one or from a serious illness, we want to fix the situation. Or perhaps our friend’s situation brings up our own concerns about illness or death, and we react out of fear.

Sometimes, we try to say something profound, some bit of wisdom gleaned from a book or website, but such forced words often drop with a thud. Other times, we fall back on commonly used words of sympathy, many of which may sound insensitive to the suffering individual. The following sentiments mean well but may cause more pain than comfort:

“You're So Strong"

The recipient of these words might not feel strong at all. In fact, they may be experiencing feelings of helplessness, despair and fear about the future. Telling them how brave they are could make them feel worse, because they think you’re implying they’re not coping as well as they should or that they are taking too long to get over a loved one’s death.

Ann Silberman, who has breast cancer, writes on her blog about someone telling her that she’s so brave: “You are referring to me showing up on time for doctor’s appointments? . . . It’s nice to be called brave, but we cancer patients all know we aren’t. Brave is a word best reserved for people who deliberately put themselves in harm’s way. Trust me, if I could get out of this, I would. . . . The truth is, I have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other and do what my doctors say” ( Instead, give your friend permission to feel sad, scared and a little needy. Just hearing those words might be enough for her to feel she doesn’t have to shoulder the loss on her own or put on a brave face.

“She Lived a Full Life”

Phrases like “He is in a better place” or “God wanted her to be with him” may trivialize the person’s pain. Other unhelpful remarks include: "Time heals all wounds" and "Things always work out for the best." Unless you know and share the other person's religious beliefs, statements like "It was God's will" could be offensive or, at the very least, meaningless.

In a column entitled “What Can I Say That's Actually Helpful in Times of Grief?,” one commenter stated, ”If I believed what a lot of people say about the deceased, that God had His reasons, etc., then my only sane reaction if the people I love most died would be commit suicide and go try to kill God. Obviously that's not sane, so I ignore those oafs” (Lifehacker).

More than anything, the bereaved want to have their loss and pain recognized. A simple “I’m so sorry for your loss” acknowledges their pain rather than aims to make them feel better, which is probably not going to happen for a while.

Mourners may find comfort when you celebrate a deceased person’s life with your memories. “Share a brief story,” advises Puchta. “Connect with a person’s heart: ‘Barb your dad was so amazing‘ or ‘Your parents were our neighbors; they were always so friendly.’”

“I Know How You Feel”

Every person experiences grief and pain differently. Just because your aunt had liver cancer doesn’t mean you know how your friend feels after learning she has breast cancer. It’s better to acknowledge the person’s pain, without trying to make it similar to yours or minimizing it. Experts advise stepping out of our own shoes and imagining someone else’s turmoil and sadness.

The process of grief is complicated and involves many feelings: sadness, anger, anxiety and guilt, just to name a few. So, while you may be experiencing sadness over a loved one’s death, someone else may be feeling anger.

Cancer patient Silberman, reacting to someone saying “I know how you feel,” writes sarcastically, “Oh fantastic, let’s talk about the best way to relieve chemo-induced constipation without bringing on diarrhea! What’s your tip?” (

Instead, ask “How are you feeling?” or "I can't imagine what you're going through." This allows the person to talk about her anger, sadness or despair, rather than turning the conversation to your own feelings.

Maybe someone who is suffering is not ready to talk. In trying to comfort a loved one, “Follow their lead,” says Puchta. “Either they want to avoid or delve into it.”

“Have You Tried This Treatment?”

When trying to help others, we have an innate desire to fix the problem. It’s especially tempting to tell someone who is seriously ill about a new miracle or non-traditional cure you read about on a website: “Have you tried yoga? Shots of Vitamin K? Meditation?”

Chances are good that your friend has already read or thought about alternative treatments, and doctors warn that cancer is complicated and what works for one type won’t work for another. Just as important, your friend likely doesn’t need to be burdened with more options and information when she already has a lot on her mind.

Similarly, trying to tell someone to think positively can be offensive.

Says Silberman: “Don’t worry, I’m so busy concentrating on controlling the rivers of diarrhea without needing a diaper, my blood levels being so low I can get infected if my dog sneezes and vacuuming up the peeling skin on my hands and feet that I’m too busy to think negatively.

“It’s awful to tell somebody to think positively. Do you think all those cancer patients who are now dead thought negatively? It’s not a good thing to put the burden of our disease on us” (

“Let Me Know if I Can Do Anything”

Few people undergoing extreme grief or turmoil are going to take the time and energy to figure out what they need done. Or they may think that you are just being polite and saying something that makes you feel better. This passive expression of sympathy actually puts the burden on the person who is suffering to figure out what to ask you to do.

“Having to think of something I or we may need immediately sends my sleep-deprived and emotionally drained brain into the blankest of modes,” writes Silberman (

It’s much better, experts say, to offer to do a specific task. For example, call an ill friend and ask what you can pick them up at the grocery store. Bring a widow some prepared food, take them out for coffee, treat them to a movie or invite them to go on a walk. Stop by to check on an ill family member or find a chore that needs doing and do it.

“Pick up the phone and order a day of housecleaning service,” suggests Silberman. “Send over a fruit basket. Knock on the door and drop off a casserole. Come over and scrub the tub. . . . Bring a DVD of a funny movie and some chocolate. Stay with her in the hospital so she will get good nursing care. . . . Do something, don’t just talk about it. Just help, and don’t ask permission first.”

Doing Nothing

One of the worst things you can do is ignore someone who is suffering. People who have cancer or a terminal disease or who have just lost a loved one often feel very alone. Ignoring them just compounds the feelings of isolation.

“Yes, cancer is scary and yes, it’s hard to know what to say,” writes another cancer patient. “But when a loved one responds to ‘I have cancer’ with silence, that conjures up a special kind of pain. Overwhelmed by a friend or family member’s diagnosis? Don’t focus on the cancer; focus instead on the person you love and what you can do for them” (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center).

You don’t even have to say anything. Many times people just want to be heard. Writes a parent: “My son died about four years ago. The worst part for me was/is that people are afraid to talk about him, like they'll reopen an old wound or something. I'm sure it's different for everyone, but my wife and I want to talk about him and remember the good times with him. . . . But you will probably see some tears, and that makes people feel like they're hurting you” (from Lifehacker).


“8 Things NOT To Say When Your Friend Is Grieving,” September 2012, Prevention

“10 Best Things to Say to Someone in Grief,” Heal Your Life

“Say what? 8 things you shouldn’t – and should – say to a cancer patient,” Oct. 30, 2013, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

“Timely insight on cancer topics from the experts of the American Cancer Society,” American Cancer Society

“Cancer caregiver advice on what to say and how to help,” April 11, 2013, MD Anderson Cancer Center

“What Can I Say That's Actually Helpful in Times of Grief?,” Lifehacker

“What do you say to a person who has cancer?” Dec. 6, 2011,

“What to say to someone with cancer/thoughts on how to be a friend to someone with a serious illness,” April 5, 2013 Lisa Boncheck Adams website

Finding the Right Words at a Bad Time was featured in the  August 2014 Senior Spirit newsletter.

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors